Sexually active older men may be more likely to have a heart attack, heart failure or stroke compared with their less lusty peers, new study suggests.
For older women, however, good sex may actually lower the risk of hypertension, according to the study by Michigan State University (MSU) funded by the US National Institutes of Health. The study, published online on September 6 in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, is said to be the first large-scale study of how sex affects heart health later in life.
“These findings challenge the widely held assumption that sex brings uniform health benefits to everyone,” says Hui Liu, MSU associate professor of sociology.
By contrast, an active sex life appears to have no bearing on older women’s heart health. And older women who described the sex as enjoyable, pleasurable or satisfying emotionally and/or physically saw some health benefit, the study found.
“When men get older, they may have more difficulties reaching an orgasm for medical or emotional reasons,” she noted, perhaps leading to overexertion, exhaustion and cardiovascular stress.
Also, medication and supplements to improve sexual function “may have negative effects on their cardiovascular health,” Liu said.
“Moreover, having quite a high frequency of sex may indicate problems of sexual addiction, sexual compulsivity or sexual impulsivity,” she said. These may be related to the onset of anxiety and/or depression, which can negatively affect the heart, Liu said.
But at least one cardiologist said he was reluctant to accept the study findings until more research is carried out.
The study researchers evaluated survey responses from more than 2,200 seniors who participated in the U.S. National Social Life, Health and Aging Project. Participants answered sexual behavior questionnaires in 2005-2006 and again five years later. All were 57 to 85 years old at the time of the first survey.
Among the findings: Older men were more likely than older women to say they were sexually active. In the two surveys, about 70 percent and 50 percent of men, respectively, said they had had sex in the past year, compared with roughly 40 percent and 23 percent of women.
Men were also more likely to say they had more frequent sex. In the two polls, between 20 percent and 25 percent of men said they had sex once a week or more in the prior year, compared with 11 percent of women.
Finally, men were more likely than women to say their sex was “extremely physically pleasurable” 36 percent versus 23 percent in the first survey. And 37 percent of men said their sex was “extremely emotionally satisfying,” compared to 25 percent of women.
Survey responses were then compared to key cardiovascular measures, including blood pressure readings, rapid heart rate, elevated C-reactive protein levels, and incidence of heart attack, heart failure and/or stroke.
Compared with older men who said they weren’t sexually active, those who had sex once a week or more were almost twice as likely to experience a heart attack, heart failure or stroke by the second survey.
And men who found sex enjoyable also faced a higher risk for such heart illnesses, the study authors said.
Neither risk was seen among women. Women who said their sex lives were extremely pleasurable or satisfying had a lower risk for high blood pressure than women who didn’t the study advice.